Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Living in the Past, Living in the Future

Living in the Past

I have an American friend in Panama who seems to dwell in the past more than the present. He grew up in the Bahamas in the 1970's, a particularly carefree place, and his walls are covered with photographs of the days when he flew high in many ways - he was a surfer and a pilot, but also a drug and alcohol abuser and lived in what was essentially a commune. Someone in his life was a painter and he has several of her paintings on his walls, most of them depicting idyllic scenes of the Bahamas: a curving beach lined with palm trees, the water lapping at the shore.

He began to lose his vision in his late teens. It was a progressive condition with no cure. He sobered up and became a drug and alcohol counselor. He can still see, but not well.

His life is very different now. He has been sober for fourteen years, he is divorced, and he lives alone in a comfortable house in the Panama countryside.

He speaks of the past often, and when I visit we frequently end up talking about one of the photographs on his walls or in his albums: him sitting on the stoop of a ramshackle house with a big German shepherd dog on his lap; standing next to a small airplane, wearing shorts and a tank top; sitting in a bar with his arm around Count Basie, a famous jazz pianist who died in the 1980's.

This friend of mine becomes easily discouraged when things don't go his way here in Panama. He doesn't have a clear idea of what he wants from Panama, aside from a comfortable, peaceful place to spend his days (which would certainly be enough for many people, but is not enough for my friend); and I wonder if his inability to visualize his future is what causes him to turn to the past for comfort. Sometimes I think that the loss of his sight is responsible: that in losing the ability to see the beauty around him, he is forced to detour in his mind into the past, where everything is as bold and bright, and pleasantly nostalgic as he wants it to be. Herb Caen, who for many decades wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle before he passed away, said half-jokingly that he tended to live in the past because most of his life was there. I wonder if my friend believes this as well.

The Unreality of Linear Time

What is the past, anyway? Sure, there are physical remains of the past all around us, such as volumes of ancient books under glass in museums, or the bricks of the pyramids, or the bones of a dinosuar embedded in the earth. But those things exist in the present. What happened to the past? Where did it go?

Nowhere, according to modern physics. Einstein believed that the disctinction between past, present and future was an illusion, and that all exist simultaneously. It's only we humans who are limited to our linear reality and our moment-by-moment perceptions.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said in what Muslims call a "hadith Qudsi," or a statement in which the Prophet is narrating a statement of Allah that is not a part of the Quran:

"Allah said, 'Sons of Adam inveigh against [the vicissitudes of] Time, but I am Time, in My hand is the night and the day.'"

So if God himself is time, and He is eternal, existing in all times and all places, then time must also be unconfined by our incredibly limited linear perspective.

I find it interesting, by the way, how much of modern quantum physics echoes and confirms religious concepts expressed in the Quran.

Coming to Terms With My Personal Past

But I'm thinking more of my personal past, or yours: my childhood, my pains and joys, my humiliations and victories. Are they just chemical markers in my brain, perhaps remembered wrongly, or do they exist? What am I supposed to do with this past, how am I supposed to use it?

You see, I don't have quite as comfortable a relationship with my past as my friend.

I know that I need to come to terms with my past. I have a vast and motley assortment of memories colored with regret, shame, confusion, and yes some happy memories as well but they are widely spaced lights on a dark road.

Virginia Woolf wrote, "Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart and his friends can only read the title."

This not to say that I have no worries about the future or that I am supremely confident. But I am strong. I always have been. Watch me wrap my knees and get under a 450 lb. bar on a squat rack. I'm strong, mind and body. I can take whatever the future might throw at me (but that's not a challenge, God)! I can ride it, bust through it, go around it, tunnel under it. I'm strong.

What I want is not to be free of any ill that might befall me, but to conduct myself well. I want to do the right thing and have no regrets. And that's the thing about the past you see, that there are times when I did the wrong thing, and there's nothing I can do about it now.

Like the time, many years ago, that I was walking along Seventh Street in San Francisco with Laura, only a block from our building. We were probably on our way back from the Brainwash Cafe or some SOMA restaurant, I don't recall. Seventh street is a sketchy neighborhood, especially at night. Lots of drug dealers, homeless folks and nutcases. We were coming up to Market Street from Mission, when across the street in the dark mouth of Natoma alley we noticed three men beating and kicking a man who was on the ground. Laura said, "What should we do?"

I could see that this was not a case of some innocent tourist getting robbed. All the men involved looked like thugs. I didn't feel like running over there and getting stabbed or shot. So I said, "Leave it alone, we'll call the cops from the apartment." We kept on walking.

This was not the right thing to do, and I knew that even then. At the very least I could have shouted from my side of the street, or hollered for the cops. Maybe the three men would have run off. I could say that I was thinking of Laura's safety, but the truth is, I was just afraid to intervene.

There are other examples in which my behavior was less understandable or rational, and I don't particularly feel like discussing them. Suffice it to say that I have caused pain to others deliberately and inadvertently, and now that I am older, calmer, wiser, more understanding of other peoples' behavior, and more in touch my own soul, I regret many of the choices I made when I was young.

I can't go back and re-do any of it. I just have to live with the regret. All my strength and courage in the face of the future seems to avail me nothing when thinking of the past.

I know the AA folks say that regret for the past is a waste of spirit. And I believe that. In spite of this post I don't sit around crying over the past. I mostly just avoid thinking about it. And that's exactly my point. I wish I didn't have to do that. I wish I had a better relationship with my own past and could allow myself to experience it, relish the bright parts, laugh over the stupid mistakes, and remember the day to day pleasures. But in fact my memory of the past is very poor, perhaps because I avoid it. I find that when I meet old friends and they tell stories of things we have done together in the past, I rarely remember. I rely on them to be my memory, in a since, which is rather pitiful for someone who hasn't been in a coma or car accident.

I acknowledge that some of the problem may not be my actions themselves, but the way that I veiw them. My life in Panama was full of small joys and happy days, but now that I am back in the USA even that has become tinged with sadness.

Living in the Future

Perhaps because my past is a closed book of regrets, I focus on the future, almost obsessively so. Unlike my friend in Panama, my vision of the future burns like lasers. I am constantly thinking, planning, dreaming. I have bright dreams and no shortage of self-confidence. I am willing to take risks. I try to expand my horizons every day. I try to challenge myself mentally, physically and spiritually. I take tremendous pleasure in parenting my daughter Salma, though she does run me down sometimes like an Energizer bunny on its last legs. I'm a person of faith. I believe in God, the essential goodness of the world, myself, and the people I love.

Still, I need to find a way to come to terms with my past and even find joy in it. Focusing exclusively on the future is like driving a car and never looking in the rear view mirror. There are times when you really need to know what's coming up behind you, for your own safety. I'd like to remember my past better. It's been said that past is prologue, and I'd like to have a clearer insight into my own early chapters. I don't know how to go about this.

Any ideas? And please, don't just say, "Get over it." Give me something real to work with, ha ha. Share your insights, I am open to them.


steve said...

Those folks in AA read a book called(oddly enough) Alcohloics Anonymous. In addition to 12 steps and 12 traditions,which really is a way of life,it lists the promises on pages83-84. "If we are painstaking about this phase of our development,we will be amazed before we are halfway through.We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to close the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.Self seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook on lifewill change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.We will suddenly realize that God is doing for uswhat we could not do for ourselves. It works for me. Hope this helps.
Steve D

mayalibre said...

Re living in the past, brain and neuroscientists are discovering more and more that certain "bents" of mind are also patterned. In Yiddish they call it "schtick" -- it's your way, your inclination, and it's not always intentional. SPECT scans, which are electromagnetic pattern pictures of brains, are now giving clear pictures of schtick, or patterns, such as ADD, post-traumatic stress, depression, or, as in your friend, when someone strongly inclines toward the past.

In his case it's a good picture, so good for him. But he may also point that direction a little too much....

As for you, whether you 'avoid' the past, and thus fail to remember it as much as you would like to - perhaps you do. But I think that's a truly spiritual question, which is why AA has something to say about it.

My understanding is that the ideal we seek is somewhere between you and your friend. And celebrate your instinct -- you want to engage more with your past -- but you don't. You are seeing that your response isn't unified. And you already know that the answer *can't* be in *just* the superficial pleasantness or unpleasantneess of the events themselves... So what then?

I believe that what we are seeking is understanding and acceptance of our unpleasant memories which, while not desireable, are actually great teachers. We shouldn't get sucked into any intellectual arguments about whether are the *best* teachers -- that's not important. Just that they *are* teachers, who help us develop the critical 'muscles' of restraint, grieving, empathy, compassion, humility and amends. How can we live in a world with others if we don't have those things?

You are not the only person who has ever been thoughtless, mindless, even perversely underhanded. But because you're alive, and as long as you are, you have 100% creative ability every day. That's the blessing and miracle we are given every day.

Thank the past, and grieve (rather than block) whatever you've 'lost' (including your old self-image). THE WHOLE IDEA is to let go of the past, but only after we've grieved it ALL THE WAY THROUGH... leaving it with only sweet imprints or resolved peace.

And believe me, the future will have new pains enough.... ;-)

Wael in Panama said...

Thank you for the very thoughtful comments I have received in response to my post. I appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

stedeankI agree with mayalibre particularly re: the spiritual connection. Electromagnetic brain patterns are way out of my league;interesting,but at least it is not psycho babble I've heard in the past. In AA it is a lot simpler: clean house(admit your part in the past,make amends), trust God(as You understand him,her)and help others. I truly beleive in living one day at a time;that my higher power's will for me(and you) is to be happy,joyous and free; humility is the foundation of each step in ALL the 12 step programs. Einstein said"insanity is continuing do the same things,ecpecting different results".Progress,not perfection is the goal.

Anonymous said...

I agree with mayalibre particularly re: the spiritual connection. Electromagnetic brain patterns are way out of my league;interesting,but at least it is not psycho babble I've heard in the past. In AA it is a lot simpler: clean house(admit your part in the past,make amends), trust God(as You understand him,her)and help others. I truly beleive in living one day at a time;that my higher power's will for me(and you) is to be happy,joyous and free; humility is the foundation of each step in ALL the 12 step programs. Einstein said"insanity is continuing do the same things,ecpecting different results".Progress,not perfection is the goal.